If there is one thing I wish I didn’t have to teach, it is handwriting.
While we can make handwriting instruction as multi-sensory and progressive as possible, and utilize the excellent program “Handwriting Without Tears,” handwriting success requires a lot of rote repetition, writing letters over and over to lock the formation into muscle memory.
However, I would never choose to not teach handwriting. For many children, it is far easier to identify a letter than to produce one. We cultivate a classroom environment in which children identify as writers and authors, and it is difficult to get your ideas on to paper when you are distracted by trying to remember how to form a certain letter. A key piece in reading and writing development is the ability to read your own writing back to yourself, and a child with illegible handwriting won’t experience that crucial feedback. Children begin to dislike and avoid writing when it is challenging. So handwriting instruction it is.
Many years ago at Manhattan Country School, when I had been the 5-6s teacher for a few years, I was dismayed to hear that children in the 6-7s were still struggling with their handwriting and pencil grips (how they held their writing tools). We had successfully implemented the Handwriting Without Tears program in both the 4-5s and 5-6s, yet 6-7s Teacher Laura Swindler reported that she was having to re-teach how to hold a pencil and form letters. Why wasn’t our hard work having more permanent benefits? Giving up handwriting instruction didn’t seem to be the answer, and we all agreed Handwriting Without Tears was the best program out there, so what could be done? But then I took some time away from teaching to be with my newborn daughter, and these questions receded into the background.
Three years later I returned to MCS in a part-time administrative position, anticipating returning to teaching 5-6s when the school began doubling the following year. Laleña Garcia was the 5-6s teacher, and I had the opportunity to be in her classroom for short snippets throughout the year. I walked in one day during handwriting time to find her coaching children on how to do “plank position” (on one’s hands and feet, parallel to the ground, as if about to do a push-up). A student articulately explained that by doing planks, “we make our core muscles strong so we can be steady to do our handwriting.” Genius!
Laleña had touched upon something key, that in order for children to be really ready to write, their bodies had to be primed as well. Perhaps students weren’t as successful with handwriting because they needed more opportunities to strengthen the fine motor muscles necessary to support healthy pencil grip and letter formation. While we offer children many opportunities to utilize their finger muscles in many activities throughout the day, we weren’t explicitly targeting specific fine motor development. What if, in addition to handwriting, we had times specifically dedicated to strengthening fine motor muscles?
We began planning for the following school year, and decided to create a consistent time in the weekly schedule during which children would do a variety of fine motor activities. One of Laleña’s gifts is her ability to effectively explain to children why they are doing what they are doing. Rather than calling this time something like “Finger Activities,” we chose to name it “Fine Motor Workout.” In this way we could talk to children about the muscles in their hands, and that we need to exercise them (just like grown-ups might do a workout) to help us do our best writing.
Thus Fine Motor Workout was born, and it is one of the most anticipated times of our week. The activities span the gamut. During FMW time, you might see children attaching paper with clothespins, using tweezers to extract rubber spiders from string webs, balancing marbles on golf tees, stretching rubber bands around cans, figuring out which keys fit into which padlocks and making designs with tacks on corkboard, to name a few. It is a wonderful balance of fun and purpose, and children frequently remark, “This is easier for me than it was last time, my muscles are getting stronger!” We also supplement these activities with exercises to strengthen the children’s large (gross motor) muscles, as Laleña modeled years ago with teaching children to do planks, since without a strong foundation children’s fine motor muscles lack support. 5-6s work on wheelbarrows, crab walks and more, enhancing the shoulder girdle and core muscles crucial to fine motor success.
We’ve noticed that children strengthen their pencil grips more quickly and retain the improvements as they age. Even more importantly, children who otherwise would become discouraged at their own lack of fine motor control have the language and self-awareness about how these are muscles to be strengthened and worked on. They know children shouldn’t just be good at handwriting or immediately dextrous, but that we practice (and have fun doing it) because these things are tricky! Instead of saying, “I’m not good at handwriting,” they can say, “My fine motor muscles aren’t super strong...yet.”